The two rounds of municipal elections in Beit Shemesh pitted haredi residents against the secular and the modern religious. Haredi figures, such as MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism), framed the vote as part of a larger “war against religion.”
The non-haredim of Beit Shemesh, represented by Eli Cohen, the man who challenged incumbent mayor Moshe Moshe Abutbul, saw the campaign as a battle against religious extremism.
Before the results were known, many non-haredi residents vowed that they would leave the city if Abutbul won.
In the tensest moments, it seemed that Beit Shemesh was on the verge of a civil war. And on election day, at least one verbal exchange deteriorated into fisticuffs.
Is Beit Shemesh a microcosm of what might happen in other towns and cities across the country? Once, not long ago, Beit Shemesh was a small, quiet development town. In his 1983 non-fiction book In the Land of Israel, for instance, Amos Oz described the people he met in a coffee shop in its commercial center as members of the Sephardi masses that brought Menachem Begin to power in 1977. Will other towns like Beit Shemesh gradually be transformed into predominantly haredi enclaves where the ultra-Orthodox are able to maintain and protect their unique way of life while non-haredim feel increasingly unwelcome? According to Dr. Lee Cahaner, head of the department of multidisciplinary studies at Oranim Academic College of Education, a number of basic conditions need to be fulfilled for a new haredi enclave to be created: First, haredim need to be able to build neighborhoods that enable them to protect and nurture their religious identity without outside influence. In Beit Shemesh, the haredi neighborhoods are generally separate from the older, non-haredi areas. Another condition is affordability.
The cost of housing needs to be reasonable and there needs to be plenty of room for growth. Once again, Beit Shemesh seems to meet these conditions. And finally, the town needs to be relatively close to Jerusalem or Bnei Brak, the two traditional haredi centers.
Unlike Beit Shemesh, however, where there remains a significant, though shrinking, non-haredi population, most of the haredi enclaves that have been built in recent decades are self-contained cities with no significant non-haredi population.
Places such as El Ad, Modi’in Illit and Betar Illit are exclusively haredi towns and there is, therefore, no haredi- secular tension. Perhaps a town such as Kiryat Gat might see a Beit Shemesh-like scenario develop sometime soon.
Another aspect of Beit Shemesh that made the conflict there unique was the tremendous solidarity among the diverse haredi groups. In municipal elections in other cities such as Jerusalem, hassidic and non-hassidic groups supported different candidates and Ashkenazi haredim competed against Sephardi haredim. In Beit Shemesh, in contrast, all the haredi groups were united. It is not at all clear that such solidarity will be repeated in the next elections five years from now.
Finally, it is important to remember that while haredim have been very successful at protecting their way of life from outside influences, they are also undergoing a process of change. More modern-minded haredim, whom Cahaner refers to as “the new haredim” are becoming integrated into mainstream Israeli society. Their professions are identical to those of non-haredi residents. They spend their leisure time at many of the same venues: movie theaters, playhouses, restaurants and concerts. Larger portions of the haredi population are being exposed to higher education; they are increasingly working in companies where there are non-haredi employees; they are more exposed to new technologies.
Even the most extreme elements – those belonging to the Eda Haredit communal organization – are undergoing change. For what might be the first time since the establishment of the State of Israel, members of Eda Haredit, who have traditionally boycotted all elections, municipal and national, participated the March 11 revote in Beit Shemesh.
And the haredi leadership has increasingly splintered.
There are at least four haredi news dailies representing four political camps. No single rabbinic figure can claim to unite the entire ultra-Orthodox camp. Both Ashkenazim and Sephardim are split into many groups. The polarization and animosity we witnessed during the Beit Shemesh elections reflect an underlying culture war. It would be a mistake, however, to view the town as a microcosm of Israeli society. The reality is more complex, and less polarized.